Existing best practices related to the use of games in PBL and engineering education

The use of games in education is not new. During the last years concepts such as game-based learning and “gamification” have been developed and experienced in different contexts. Therefore, in order to attain the goals of the eCity project a search of existing projects was conducted to perform an analysis of best practices about the use of games in PBL and engineering education. As a result, a relatively large variety of games was found, from city simulators, e-health games, games to teach programming, games to improve teaching practices, etc. Next sections include a summary of the main best practices related to the use of games in PBL and education. These best practices are taken into account for the development of eCity games.

A. Academic knowledge needed to play

One possible practice to follow in games is the use of academic knowledge as a tool to achieve goals. This means that to play the user will need to have some previous knowledge and, in addition, such knowledge must be expanded to move forward in the game itself. There is therefore a kind of binomial fun/knowledge. Knowledge becomes a need to succeed in the game, which will motivate learning by students.

Usually this binomial relation fun/knowledge is reflected in the availability of various levels in games and the need to gradually acquire new knowledge to go to the upper levels. Note that in some cases it is not necessary to have a certain initial knowledge, just enough student's curiosity, and the game itself would be enough to provide or promote such a knowledge.

B. Sophisticated design techniques

The availability of an attractive platform that changes the learning process into an interesting and motivating process can improve learners’ engagement and motivation. Therefore, using sophisticated design techniques is another best practice. These techniques allow to provide scenarios as close to reality as possible, with characters and situations in which the players can feel reflected. The graphic qualities should be high and the system must respond quickly to user actions.

If a student feels reflected in avatars or feels that he/she faces on common situations in his/her usual day, it is quite feasible that he/she gets more interested with the game and finds a solution to problems.

C. Multiple scenarios

Not all students have the same level of knowledge or curiosity and games usually include multiple scenarios focused on different profiles. In some systems the game can adapt the level of difficulty to the academic level of the students. The choice of scenario can be used to study different concepts and adapt to specific situations. In others cases the players can choose themselves the game scenario. Furthermore, sometimes users are allowed to create their own scenarios, from scratch or by modifying existing ones.

A wide variety of situations and scenarios can be used to maintain high levels of commitment. Stages can be used to achieve different learning objectives or multiple scenarios can be used to achieve the same objectives. In this way the game can be reused in different contexts. Games should also include variety of scenarios and random elements that prevent repetitiveness and too deterministic flows, so players cannot predict or anticipate the flow of events.

D. Promotion of interest and creativity in players

Games should produce interest and inspire creativity in learners. If the student is not motivated learning will be more difficult. Games can raise the commitment of students to become active. Furthermore, they can contribute to maintain the interest at a high level during the game sessions and beyond.

It is also important to eliminate the cognitive load to maintain a high level of commitment and care during the different stages of the game. The availability of several navigation modes or the complexity of the learning objectives can be considerable difficulties in players that can be negatively affected in their commitment and motivation. Students need to acquire knowledge increasing the level of complexity gradually. In any case, balance between fun and learning/ difficulty is needed. This means that the game can neither be a simple funny game without any learning, nor only involve difficult concepts without any incentive.

Related to the best practices introduced in previous sections the fact that some games enable students to design their own scenarios also helps to develop their creativity.

E. The promotion of social interaction

This is an opportunity for students to acquire knowledge and improve skills such as to relate to others, to listen and be heard, to discuss and give opinions, etc. This is achieved by blogs, forums, wikis, discussions in the classroom, group work, etc.

Real-time communication typically occurs in face-to-face workshops or in web conferences where decisions are made collaboratively. However, these options are not the most used ones. Asynchronous communications through emails, blogs and wikis are more common. These tools minimize the problems associated to the constraints of time and space because the distribution of participants in different countries and time zones.

F. Promoting the use of games and communication on social networks

Games should be promoted to the widest possible number of people and places and many advantages can be derived from this dissemination effort. Many advantages can be derived from this dissemination effort, including improvements in the platforms themselves because the increased usage and scope demands it. Some mechanisms to promote the use are: speeches, organize events and meetings, and competitions. Today, with the importance of social networks, it is highly recommended to use them as a tool to promote the game and even to use them to play games directly on its system. Another interesting aspect is that some tools are available for use in mobile devices and this provide an event greater scope

G. Multilingual and multiplatform

The available of a game in multiple languages seeks to break the language barrier and the difficulties associated with language. It is also interesting that the games are available for multiple platforms increasing in this way the opportunities of use. Of the studied projects most are available for Windows, Linux and Mac OS X. Furthermore, it is more frequent to find games available for mobile devices.

H. Games development

Depending on who and where they are intended to be used, the development of games varies. In case of younger students the development effort is usually focused on attraction and simplicity based on collaboration. In the case of university students, the goal is to acquire complex knowledge in a simpler way.

I. Facilitate learning tasks

Another best practice that can be considered is the facilitation of learning tasks. This may be implemented initially as an informative phase that serves to draw the attention of students and explain the rules and the objectives to be achieved. During the game the tutors/educators can provide help and guidance to the learners. Once the game ended discussions can be organized to consolidate learning, or even the evaluation itself can help.

Many times it is required that certain project stakeholders, such as educators and experts from outside in the project, are involved to provide appropriate information and guidance.

J. Evaluation

A proper evaluation is key to get a good result in projects. Among other things, evaluation provides information about the most troubled parts. Contrarily, it also allows to identify the most successful parts, which provides guidance to follow the right path in development of the platform.